Alto trombone for tenor players

I’ve had a surprising number of requests for my thoughts on how tenor players can best learn alto trombone. My sense is that there are a fair amount of alto trombones out there not being used to their fullest because of the difficulty for a tenor player to play both well.

That is precisely why I sold my tenor in college shortly after taking up the alto. I was trying to play both. After all, I had gigs around town, school groups and my trombone studies so I was trying to hang on to my tenor proficiency while learning the alto. But I got to the point of sounding bad on both. I’m not suggesting both can’t be played really well simultaneously, just not by me back then.

So like early explorers wishing to remove the fallback of sailing back home once things got difficult, I sold my tenor and forced myself to get it together. It was a struggle, but I eventually wrestled it to the ground! I just needed to come clean on a little history because I do not think it is easy to learn the alto on the side with the full or greater proficiency many tenor players desire.

I would be remise if I didn’t at least mention my book Alto Trombone Savvy. One of my best selling books, it takes player from the basics of learning the positions and partials all the way through playing jazz. Check it out here and download the free preview.

Learning the alto trombone

First, I treat the tenor as a C instrument. I know that the fundamental is Eb, but the tenor’s fundamental is Bb and we still read C music. For me, 440 hertz is A4. When I see the A above the staff, I simply play A440 in second position.

I hear some players say that they are doing mental transposition up a fourth in order to get the positions, and I recommend against that. I think learning the alto trombone means learning the new positions of the notes on sight. Middle C in 4th position, F above that in third, the F an octave below in sixth, and so on. In tune and on command. Even if you can accomplish the mental gymnastics of that sight transposing, how do you apply that to reading changes playing jazz?

Here are some tips:

  • Practice with some simple music playing in the background so that you can hear the intonation. Playing the C scale on alto a capella will help you to learn the positions, but hearing related harmonies along with your playing will help you hone your intonation. One of the things you’ll hear from most guys playing alto is that the intonation isn’t clean because they’re a little unsure of the slide positions. As trombone players we know that intonation isn’t solely about positions, but your face can’t yet compensate if you’re still fishing for the positions, even minutely.
  • Like you probably do on tenor, practice intervals. One of the harder notes on an alto is the F below middle C. It’s in sixth position. Practice – slowly at first – going from F back to first position Eb. You’ll need to have that movement down. Then play G (forth position) F, Eb. Yea, it’s hard. Again, like I wrote above, practice this with some harmonies in the background to nail the pitch of that F. Then slowly play the Eb major scale. (Be careful not to pop off the slide when going for that F. It’s a shorter slide!)
  • My one case for mental transposition is when practicing exercises like Kopprasch or Bach Cello Suites because much of those exercises go below low A which, without a trigger, cannot be played naturally. So I read them in the tenor positions up a fourth. I play those Cello Suites A LOT. I do not do this as a cheat to learning positions. I do it to play certain great music and trombone exercises so that they fall naturally within the upper forth mechanics of the alto.

Last, let me reiterate that to play the alto well, and not just as a novelty sideline instrument requires dedication. If you have the luxury, put the tenor in a closet for a week and force yourself to play the alto exclusively. I don’t mean at concerts or recordings, unless you’re ready. But maybe a period of time in which you can suffer through playing alto exclusively. This is all coming from my experience, and maybe you are a much more talented musician and trombone player than me. I mean that. Maybe you can play both without a hardcore exclusive dedication to the alto. It’s kind of uncharted territory because, honestly I haven’t heard any really solid jazz/ improvisational alto players.

Go for it!!!

17 thoughts on “Alto trombone for tenor players”

  1. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for taking the time to provide these very useful pointers. I am guilty of keeping my alto bone hidden in the closet. Perhaps it’s time for a coming out ceremony. You’ve inspired me to give it a go!

    Regards, Scott.

  2. Mike, that was a very good article. I have a couple of questions for you: what do you use as background harmony for your practice and about how long did it take, after you sold your tenor, to feel comfortable with the tuning of the alto? Thanks.


    1. As you can imagine, the music I’m creating serves as background for much of the playing I’m doing these days. Recording myself daily, all the time striving for the best end result of which I’m capable, is tremendously beneficial. I’m a huge advocate of recording yourself and critically listening back. It doesn’t hurt to have several hundred people to whom you’re committed to regularly sending your best!!

      I also create rhythm tracks for tunes I need to practice for performances. Simple piano, bass, drums like for what I put in the blog post for learning to improvise. I sometimes even just record my piano for some quick harmonies.

      If I were back to learning the alto, I would do things like:

      – Record a Bb7 on the piano or synth, then loop it while I played going from Eb to F to G (below middle C) – all the while listening for the pitch and feeling for the accuracy of the initial slide positions. Then play another chord containing those notes. Do it again.
      – Play with a recording of an improvised solo within my skill level. No Michael Brecker!
      – Play back a single tone from a tone generator or synth while I play tones around it listening for intonation and seeing how quickly I can get the slide into the correct position.

      As far as how long it took, honestly, I don’t remember back that far. I’ve played alto exclusively for 35 years. I do remember the frustration of playing it poorly and the struggle of getting my playing of it to the point where the notes landed quickly in the right tuning. I sound odd on the alto because most players play it part time and therefore haven’t developed the muscle memory to nail the notes. For them, each note sounds tentative – slightly off and slow to get to pitch, right?

      I have the added benefit of being a practicing maniac. Always have been. I was listening to one of the trumpets last night at a big band rehearsal bragging that he doesn’t practice anymore. Really? When do you not need to practice? And, by the way, he sounds like he doesn’t practice!

      Hope that helps.

  3. I came into the alto from a different “angle,” and it may be of interest although I’m not here to encourage anyone to do it my way.

    I had always played jazz standards in many different keys just for fun, and was lucky enough to have accompanists on piano/bass/guitar who enjoyed it also. Singers do it all the time, why not us?

    To be sure, there were/are pianists and bassists who did not enjoy transposing into other keys, and in that case don’t risk a train wreck, DO be able to play in the tunes’ standard keys. (But just a bit more on this. Tenor trombones and tenor saxes, in my experience, find that the standard tunes in the standard keys really don’t lie well on the instrument – down in the mud, or quite high on the horn, and on a trombone this can quickly become tiring. Try them up a third, fourth or fifth, see what happens.)

    I first picked up an alto trombone about age 33, in the exhibit hall at an early Trombone Workshop. I just noodled on it, pretending it was a real trombone (tenor), playing scales and arpeggios and tunes. Nothing to it if you pretend it’s a tenor, except the pitches are different of course, just as they would be if a tenor sax player played his first alto sax or bari: just play. I ignored the pitches, which were of course different, just as the sax player would.

    The alto was an old Bach E-flat, with the bell in the wrong place and the slide a bit short. The mouthpiece was the stock 15 or 15C. It wasn’t an easy adjustment, but I closed my eyes, let the horn sound the way it wanted to sound, and very soon was playing Dixie tunes and ballads (in whatever key I wanted, as usual).

    I have never gotten used to the idea of middle C in fourth position, or D in second. And that, obviously, is the drawback: I never learned to read on alto. Not in any clef, and I can’t play from written chords. If forced to play a solo for alto trombone, or a part in an orchestra, I’d better transpose the part (as a sax player would). The situation can certainly arise when one must sightread on alto, and that puts me in a bad spot.

    But the plus was, I could (still) play the standards by ear, as usual, in whatever key was called, and doing so was as natural as ever. Improvising also was not a problem; as simple as it would be for an experienced sax player to double.

    Probably you should do it the other way, learn the notes, do the work.

    I haven’t discussed mouthpieces and I don’t think I will, not here, not now.

    Isn’t Michael Lake playing beautifully!

  4. Great thoughts on the subject, Tom. I think it proves that what matters is the end result. I tend to gravitate in life to doing many things the hard way. As my two young boys will attest, my way is certainly not for everyone!

  5. Thanks so much for the advice. I also wanted to say that I love this recent recording you sent (Reverence). Keep up the great sounds.

  6. I agree with everything said here. One thought is simple enough, to plan to play with the radio (jazz). Aebersold might be better where I know the key they are asking for. I see Aebersold songs on youtube– free. I just checked. And for playing bass clef on alto I’d like to do Rochut. A used bass-clef Arbans is about $22 used on Amazon. I just laughed at how an older Rochut, used, is listed as more valuable than a new one.
    Interestingly, I am not saying a “tenor trombone” Arbans. I am saying/thinking simply: bass-clef Arbans. I plan to read bass clef on alto– and four other clefs. I simply want the same mental skill on alto as I have on tenor. If someone tosses a trumpet par in front of me, or a piano part, I could read it…

    I am so sorry that I make it sound so easy. What do I really know, and I am a little freaked out. But I’m more excited about this journey. Steady as it goes and I count the time in years with all artistic pursuits. I started doing gigs on tenor in 1970. My first alto trombone ever arrived yesterday.

  7. I am trying to learn, I decided to just read the Bass clef music and find the correct note on the Alto. I am a valves brass player,just playing for my own pleasure.

    1. Valve low brass? If so, reading the bass clef in “C” should make it easier that transposing or reading alto clef. Best of luck.

  8. Thank you. My alto trombone has the same size mouth piece as my tenors, shank as well, I thought it would be smaller. If I choose to go smaller , how much would be a modest change? I will probably buy a cheap Chinese at first.Or a shank adaptor. I have an old 1930s marching alto Horn and two mouth pieces for it.

  9. Btw ,my horns are rescued from life. I had a lot of experience doing repairs at USL,Lafayette,as I could not march. (polio) Wish there was a forum for that too.

    1. I would like to see/ download a slide positions chart for the Alto Trombone written on the Bass Clef Staff, I have been working at it by hand.

      1. Similarly to what I recommend for learning to improvise, I would strongly suggest that you make the chart yourself – like transcribing a solo. The effort in making that chart would start engraining in you the positions. Just think tenor a fourth up. So, just like the pitch on your third position F# above middle C needs to be brought up a bit, so does the third position B above that on the alto.

    2. My Dad contracted polio when he was a teenager and was paralyzed from the waist-down. Especially the post-polio makes for a tough affliction. Good for you in how you were able to contribute to the band.

      Regarding your question on mouthpieces, I’m not much of an authority since I’ve owned one mouthpiece my entire playing life. 6 1/2 AL. My personal philosophy has always been that I’ve got the necessary hardware, so any shortcomings in my playing are due to my own deficiencies. I respect the guys that explore the hardware, however. I’ve got a friend who owns almost 30 horns.

      Why do you want a smaller shank than what is already on your alto? Wouldn’t that constrict the sound? Did I misunderstand?

      1. The shank issue was because I have several moth pieces. I started on the 6 1/2 AL. The reason for wanting the positions number was to chech the work so. Far. I was lucky polio only affected my right leg and hip. I had planned to just read the BC note an play that pitch where it lands on the horn.

        1. The shank issue was because I have several moth pieces. I started on the 6 1/2 AL. The reason for wanting the positions number was to chech the work so. Far. I was lucky polio only affected my right leg and hip. I had planned to just read the BC note an play that pitch where it lands on the horn. I need to start a new thread

  10. Darrell Derrick

    Now my granddaughter is starting the Euphonium, first time first instrument.She is SO tiny. I keep a TenorTbone,at their house, for when I come to sit with her. I encouraged her to hang it on her wall, easy to grab,light,and Bass Cleff. Just to play clean notes on, I also got a clip on tuner. May be soon we can post duets with her and her dad on trumpet.

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